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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lower newspaper staffing affects investigative reporting

EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws protecting the public’s freedom of information. Sunshine Week is an annual examination of government’s responsiveness to citizens. The Telegraph participates with newspapers from around the country.

Across New Hampshire, newspapers that have cut heavily into their editorial staffs are looking to keep a bright spotlight on state and local governments, businesses and community groups.

Last year, the Concord Monitor, which has lost six of its 15 reporters to cutbacks, took the local housing authority to court when agency officials refused to release documents relating to the proposed demolition of a historically significant department house.

The New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, which has cut back on its statewide edition, is engaged in an ongoing court battle with state lawmakers over access to the names of the state’s top recipients of public pension plans.

The Telegraph keeps filing Right-to-Know requests for various items – including all of Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s e-mails, access to collective bargaining agreements in all area towns and even the settlement paid to fired Brookline Police Chief Thomas Goulden, which the town wanted to keep private.

And just last month, Elizabeth Dinan, the police and courts reporter for the Portsmouth Herald, won the investigative reporting category in the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Better Newspapers contest for her work uncovering the name of the Seabrook officer who broke state laws and police protocols, exceeding 100 mph in a 2010 police chase that injured a civilian.

The Herald and its sister papers, the Exeter News-Letter and the Hampton Union, among others, have lost 30 percent of their editorial staffs since 2003, said Howard Altschiller, the paper’s executive editor.

“Every reporters’ plate is filled with assignments before the day even begins and then more is heaped on as news breaks,” Altschiller wrote in an e-mail this month. “It takes extraordinary focus and discipline to execute high-quality investigative reports given this heavy workload. But … several of our reporters have proven that it can be done.”

Challenging access

Beyond staffing shortages, the obstacles facing newspapers are growing each day, according to newspaper editors, reporters and media professionals across New England.

Public officials, taking notice of news outlets’ staff shortages and fiscal troubles, are growing more bold with their interpretation and enforcement of Right-to-Know laws, declining reporters access to documents.

And the news outlets themselves, handcuffed by depleted financing, are increasingly hesitant to challenge these decisions in court, said Walter Robinson, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and former head of The Boston Globe’s investigative unit, the Spotlight Team.

“In New England especially, it’s a sad fact that access to the kinds of records that we need to do our work is often blocked by public officials who have forgotten that it is, among other things, government by the people,” said Robinson, who led an investigation into the Catholic Church abuse scandal, among other matters, during his 30-year career.

“Nowadays, when it’ll cost you thousands of dollars, you have to say, ‘Wait a minute, is it worth it? Can we afford this?’ ” Robinson said. “We didn’t have to ask those questions as much before.”

The news isn’t all bad for papers, however.

More and more resources are becoming available to reporters and editors as they look to return to a heavier load of investigative work.

More public databases, from salary listings to court records, are becoming available online, and young reporters, better schooled in technology in the Internet age, are more adept at searching online databases, Robinson said.

Beyond that, other agencies are emerging to help news outlets as they fight for records that are harder to access.

The New England First Amendment Center, which helps newspapers and media outlets in Right-to-Know lawsuits, recently launched its first law school chapter, at Suffolk Law School in Boston.

The chapter, made up of law students and faculty advisers, will provide free legal advice to the public and members of the press, many of whom have cut back on their legal budgets, Executive Director Rose Cavanaugh said.

The students “are committed ideologically to furthering freedom of information, and they have time on their hands,” Cavanaugh said. “Our goal is to get into all the New England states.”

Investigative reporting

Across the country, diminished circulations and advertising revenues forced daily newspapers to cut more than 13,500 positions from 2007-10, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And in many locations, investigative reporters, or those responsible for much of the watchdog reporting, were among the first to go.

Membership in Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national investigative group, fell by more than 30 percent to about 3,100 members in 2009, although that number has since rebounded to nearly 4,500, Executive Director Mark Horvit said.

“It would be impossible to argue there aren’t fewer papers doing real investigative reporting,” Horvit said. “There are simply fewer people around to do it. … That said, what people ignore is there’s still a lot of good work being done.”

While some outlets are looking to replenish their staffs and return to more investigative work, the future of watchdog reporting may not lie with news agencies alone.

Across the country, more than 50 nonprofit groups have emerged in 21 states in recent years, conducting their own original investigations and publishing, sharing or selling them to local and national media outlets.

In Boston, students in Northeastern University’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting have produced 18 front-page investigative stories for The Globe, among other media outlets.

And the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University has produced reporters looking into campaign financing, Massachusetts’ food stamp program and flight safety, among others put up for sale to area newspapers, radio and television stations.

“We created this center to try to fill the void that was left by the severe cutbacks in newsrooms across the country,” said Joe Bergantino, co-executive director of the investigative reporting center and a former television reporter.

“One of the first things to go is investigative reporting, which takes time and takes money,” he said. “We truly believe without it, democracy wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Many traditional news outlets agree. Over the last year, more newspapers and other outlets have started to restore time, money and effort to investigative and watchdog reporting, said Horvit, of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Many are launching more projects and dedicating money for additional staff trainings, he said.

But with the news landscape severely changed, newspapers may have to forever share their watchdog responsibilities.

“That’s what everyone’s trying to do right now. … They’re trying different models in different ways,” Horvit said.

“But all in all, I think there’s an increasing awareness of the need to do this kind of work. That will continue to make a big difference.“

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.